Somerville passes resolution, supports State House bill expunging marijuana records

Somerville City Hall is pictured on Dec. 31, 2011. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Somerville Board of Aldermen approved a resolution on Nov. 20 in support of Massachusetts House Bill 2785, which would expunge the criminal records of people charged with marijuana-related crimes.

The bill states that any record of a court appearance or violation of marijuana regulations prior to the 2016 legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts would have their records automatically expunged. Prisoners currently serving time only for marijuana-related offenses will be able to apply for discharge, according to the bill.

In addition, the bill says employers will be mandated to include a statement on applications specifying when applicants can check “no record” on their applications to include newly expunged offenses.

Somerville Ward 1 Alderman Matt McLaughlin and Alderman-at-large Wilfred N. Mbah advanced the resolution. McLaughlin said the resolution was passed with the goal of equity, pointing out that the people most negatively affected by the war on drugs are now unable to benefit from the new marijuana industry.

“In the case of this resolution, [people affected by the drug war] still have criminal records,” McLaughlin said.

Throughout meetings on marijuana zoning and licensing, he has noticed the presence of wealthy people. He said this seems incongruous with which lives have been negatively altered by marijuana charges.

There’s all this big, powerful money coming into [the marijuana industry] … and now you have all these people … who have a felony charge, and that’s preventing them from moving on with their lives,” he added.

Mbah reflected McLaughlin’s sentiments, citing the high prison population in the United States and that many people end up in prison because of drug offenses.

We have more people in jail per capita than any other country in the world,” he said, adding that expungement of marijuana records is “just logical.”

McLaughlin also recognized state Senator Patricia Jehlen, who represents the Second Middlesex district, which includes Somerville and Medford, as one of the leaders in supporting this bill. According to McLaughlin, one of the reasons Somerville advanced this resolution was to support Jehlen’s efforts.

“It’s always important to know the positions of local officials, and I am very happy to know that they agree,” Jehlen told the Daily in an email.

However, Jehlen added that since the bill has been put into study, it is dead for the current House session, as study orders are rarely approved. Jehlen also noted that the expungement of marijuana records is possible under a new provision added to Chapter 276 of the Massachusetts General Laws. Section 100k, which was supported by Jehlen when it was a bill, makes anything that is no longer a crime eligible for expungement.

This resolution follows a series of ordinances and updates to Somerville’s marijuana code. On Nov. 8, Somerville passed an ordinance giving priority to license certain establishments to open marijuana dispensaries.

For six months after the ordinance’s passage, the Licensing Commission can only accept applications from citizens of Somerville and “Economic Empowerment Applicants” who are certified by the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) of Massachusetts.

Economic Empowerment Applicants come from pre-designated “areas of disproportionate impact,” according to a CCC publication on the matter. In the publication, the CCC said its goal is to “ensure that people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana law enforcement are included in the new legal marijuana industry.”

In addition to the six-month restriction on applicants, McLaughlin stated that only one license will be granted to a non-Economic Empowerment Applicant for every Economic Empowerment Applicant who gains a license.

Mbah emphasized the importance of fairness in the passage and implementation of the ordinance.

“There are people who have been disproportionately affected by [marijuana laws] — why should they not be among the first to benefit from it?” Mbah said.

McLaughlin noted that Somerville is leading these efforts, with Cambridge and Boston using the Somerville law to model their own marijuana ordinances.

McLaughlin also added that Somerville is now treating marijuana zoning in the same way that alcohol zoning is treated, meaning a marijuana dispensary is allowed wherever a liquor store would be allowed.

“That’s become a little contentious because people are afraid of [marijuana] shops going in their neighborhood, but I felt like that was the only fair way to do it,” he said.

The zoning ordinance includes a map of locations where marijuana retail is allowed and restricts their distance from schools.

Massachusetts legalized marijuana in 2016 after a state-wide referendum. According to The New York Times, 75.7 percent of Somerville supported legalization. McLaughlin said this wide support for legalization justified the new zoning laws.